Sounds About Town, Mozart About Time 

Wednesday, Mar 1 2006


Brave and forthright rang the sounds of the Santa Monica High School Symphony; I don’t remember anything quite so ear-shattering in Disney Hall’s two-and-a-half-year history. Near the end of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, in fact, the guy on cymbals had to duck backstage and replenish his supply with a second set; his big golden platters weren’t the only things worn out that night — all in a good cause, of course.

Santa Monica High (“Samohi” in common parlance) fields a top-notch student orchestra, and has for years. The school’s trophy shelf is well stocked, and it was no idle gesture to bring the orchestra to Disney for one of the “Sounds About Town” programs. Joni Swenson has led the group for four years, and she turned one number on the program — the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony — over to an old-timer she identified as her mentor, Vince Gomez, whose credentials as a founder of student music-making here and abroad make him a virtual Johnny Appleseed of school orchestras.

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At Disney, the Samohi contingent delivered loud, robust performances of a Rimsky-Korsakov march, the Tchaikovsky Second, the Mahler movement (smoothly delivered by the string section alone) and Gershwin’s An American in Paris. It was particularly rewarding to hear the bright and ballsy Tchaikovsky, which is unjustly neglected in favor of the later symphonies. (Stravinsky was fond of it; it was one of the few works not written by him that he conducted.) I wonder, however, what value today’s young orchestras derive from the Gershwin piece, which, for all its charm, came across that night as a curio in a bygone language, the newest music on the program and yet the one piece least worth the effort of this excellent, greatly talented ensemble.

Less Well

The USC Thornton Choral Artists, which formed the backdrop for the Requiem at the Philharmonic’s better-late-than-never Mozart observance last week, probably averaged a few years older than the kids of Samohi; yet the sounds I heard from their massed forces, 83 strong, struck me as raw and unbalanced, lacking in vocal maturity. The clash of bright, harsh voices against instruments, especially against the remarkable range of Mozart’s orchestral tone colors in this extraordinary work, I found fatally disturbing. I could only balance my own disappointment, in a performance I had long anticipated,

with what I imagined — from my long-standing regard for conductor Christoph von Dohnányi’s own musical conscience — to be his own as well.

There are emanations from this work that go beyond its hokey accumulated mythology (including the rank absurdity of its treatment in the Peter Shaffer play and film) and the picky-picky discussions over editions and completions. Something happens at the very start — the plangent tones of mournful bass clarinets in darkest purple, the soft golden chords from massed trombones, the outcries from the strings — that never happened before in music, not even on Mozart’s most visionary pages. Where did he stand, at that moment, we ask as our spines shiver at these centuries-deep sounds? Into what chasm did he gaze? The question repeats itself: in the violence of the false cadence that ends the “Kyrie” and, most distressing of all, in the murky, muttered dissonances that lead out of the “Confutatis” and into the “Lacrimosa.”

We don’t need a fraudulent Salieri to guide a grotesquely overblown Mozart past these musical marvels; we do, however, need a chorus to capture their overtones of eternity with singing that is loving and awestruck. This the well-meaning youngsters of USC did not provide the other night. Illness by the scheduled soloist also cost us the Mozart piano concerto that would have properly balanced the program — the last in the series, with its slow movement also of breath-stopping melodic substance. Instead we got an agreeable but more juvenile work – No. 19 in F major, its third appearance here in the past two years — in the agreeable but juvenile hands of somebody-or-other.

Dohnányi has become a valued regular visitor. Under his “classical” hat he gave us Schumann last season, and returns with all the Brahms symphonies next. There’s more than that, however; two weeks ago, there was a beautifully shaped “complete” Firebird (shorn of a few feathers that were easily spared) and a brief, attractively dark and atmospheric piece by Britain’s Harrison Birtwistle, of whom we hear not nearly enough. Cherish this Dohnányi; everybody seems to like him, and with good reason.

Hail, Farewell, Hail

Everybody seemed to like Tom Adès, too. At his final “Green Umbrella” concert last week, there were broad hints dropped that his return next season (when, among other chores, he will look in on a staging at USC of his giddy operatic near-masterpiece Powder Her Face) might be the first in a series. We could do worse, and so could he.

This last concert was one more delightful omnium-gatherum: something very early — his Opus 2 Chamber Symphony — and other works, of later vintage. The Origin of the Harp, a middle-aged work for clarinets, violas, cellos and percussion (no harps), charmed me no end: a muttering, whirling, secretive sort of piece full of color and private jokes. At the end came the new Piano Quintet, which I raved about last fall and will do again anytime: serious, beautifully organized chamber–music writing. Music of dots and dashes — one more set of tiny, quizzical György Kurtág songs lasting little more than a minute and leaving behind disturbing prickles; 12 meditative epigrams by Niccolò Castiglioni — filled out the program, nicely delivered by singers Elizabeth Keusch and Cyndia Sieden (the Ariel of the previous week’s Tempest).

What Adès leaves behind is the memory of an exceptional presence among us, and the awareness it seems to have stirred up in musical circles: the quality of mind that seems to inform his way of composing and the splendid richness of his musical resource. Everybody in the classical crowd reacted to his being here, and talked about it, and this created a kind of vision of what musical life in an active community becomes every time something — or somebody — lively and interesting turns up at its core. We in Los Angeles are uncommonly blessed in this regard.?

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